Sergio Leone brought international renown to Italian spaghetti westerns with his violent ‘Dollars’ trilogy. Written in collaboration with Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, his next film was an epic compendium of borrowed situations from the cowboy films he loved.
Beginning with a bravura, drawn-out prologue in which gunmen await the arrival of the noon train, Once upon a Time is a story of the ruthless advance of the railroad and of the dangerous men, including the mysterious Harmonica (Charles Bronson), caught up in the struggle for power.
Slow, tense showdown sequences are made electrifying by Leone’s distended widescreen compositions and Ennio Morricone’s score, which favours each of the protagonists with their own motif. Henry Fonda plays against type as the rail company’s sadistic gun-for-hire.
“It may not be the definitive western, but it might just be the most western: part parody, part eulogy, part apotheosis, Once upon a Time in the West is every narrative and formal cliché, every grandiose gesture, every ambiguous, every subversive, every troubling commentary on American history that its parent genre deals in condensed into a sumptuously operatic melodrama that stands tall as one of the most purely cinematic spectacles ever put to film.” Alan Mattli